Academic freedom? Not here
both were rejected. So was another UK paper, and so too was a fourth by my colleague Patrick Bateson and me.
One of the speakers at Trinity was Steven Salaita, well known for his dispute with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where in 2013 he was made a conditional offer of a faculty position. Before he took up the post the offer was withdrawn by the Chancellor, citing tweets of Salaita’s such as: “If Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”
Another speaker, Mark LeVine from the University of California, Irvine, has argued that “Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory represents criminalised state behaviour at the most systematic, intricately planned and executed,” while on Facebook he has written “F**k all of you who want to make arguments about civility and how Israel wants peace.”
Earlier this year a similar “academic conference” was held in Cork, called International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism. Those attending heard that the foundation of the state of Israel was “the most successful terror campaign in history”; that “Zionists had adopted a racist, genocidal and exclusive world view”; that Israel had perpetrated “the most comprehensive ethnic cleansing operation in history”; that it’s appropriate to use the word “untermenschen” in describing Israelis’ views of Palestinians; that the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers was carried out by Mossad; that “the Zionist paranoia and desire to be hated is deeply connected to the Jewish need to have an enemy to sustain its identity”; and that Zionist parents deliberately starve their children of affection to create the callousness necessary to do what Israelis allegedly do to Palestinians.
Of the 46 speakers at Cork only one was clearly identifiable as pro-Israel; a second pro-Israel speaker, Alan Johnson, cancelled his participation when he learned that Richard Falk had been invited to give a keynote address at the meeting. (Falk is notorious for words and actions that have been widely condemned as antisemitic). But suppose Johnson had spoken in Cork. Does a total of two speakers out of 46 represent the “fair discussion of contrary views”?
The Cork meeting was originally planned for April 2015 by two professors at Southampton, Oren Ben-Dor and Suleiman Sharkh. A few weeks before it was due to take place Steve White, Chief Operating Officer of the University of Southampton, wrote to Ben-Dor, withdrawing permission. White’s letter made it clear that his decision was based on serious concerns about security on campus. At first Ben-Dor had said the conference would have “a balanced view”. But White argued that the final list had “a distinct leaning towards one point of view,” making the risk of protest very great.
Ben-Or and Sharkh then claimed that their right to free speech was being violated, but failed when they applied to the High Court for judicial review of the university’s action. Judge Alice Robinson refused the application.
When, a year later, Ben-Or and Sharkh announced that they intended to re-run the conference, the University agreed to allow it to go ahead and asked the conference to pay for the costs of policing and security. Once again the organisers went to the High Court, and once again the judge (now Mrs Justice Whipple) found that the university had acted entirely properly:“From all that I have seen in this case, I believe that freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are alive and well at Southampton University.”
This did not prevent BDS supporters from publishing misrepresentations of the university’s actions. Hilary Aked wrote about “spurious ‘health and safety’ concerns” and “an outrageous affront to freedom of speech . . . . The Israel lobby” she went on “has a long history of censorship . . .”
If the sinister “Israel lobby” tried to censor the Trinity conference, its efforts were strikingly unsuccessful. The two principal speakers made it clear that all questions concerning the rights and wrongs of the Israel/Palestine conflict (including the desirability of the boycott) had been definitively settled, and any expression of contrary views would be, at best, a waste of time. From Salaita’s speech, (available on YouTube) we learn that “If it is not turned towards revolutionary ends, then there is no reason for academic freedom to exist”. For LeVine, hearing any alternative opinion was akin to having a climate change denier or a creationist at a science conference. So much for the organisers’ pious remarks about “the role of the public university in fostering academic freedom”.
A recent, remarkably bland, account of the Trinity conference by Conor McCarthy, a founding member of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, suggests the organisers may be starting to feel embarrassed about its nakedly one-sided nature. According to McCarthy, LeVine merely “introduced the issues underpinning the conference.” And Salaita’s speech was soothingly described as “reflecting on why there is a general assumption in favour of Israel’s colonial project, while arguments in favour of Palestinians’ rights often run into ‘benevolent contempt’.”
Still, the question remains whether academic institutions will now be on guard against attempts to involve them in propaganda exercises that sail under the false flag of “academic conferences”.
Michael Yudkin is a retired professor of biochemistry at the University of Oxford. He has been working in opposition to the academic boycott since 2003
Of the 46 speakers at Cork only one was proIsrael
Trinity College, Dublin